CAMP ZAMA, Japan (May 23, 2017) - Camp Zama's 2017 Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance was hosted by Public Health Activity-Japan May 18 at Camp Zama Community Club.

"Unite Our Voices by Speaking Together" was this year's theme.

The observance began with welcoming remarks from Lt. Col. Dwayne C. Bechtol, commander of PHA-Japan, followed by music from the U.S. Army Japan Band-Pacific Brass.

The keynote speaker was Lt. Col. Lan Dalat, assigned to USARJ G-6 (Information Management).

"I'm honored standing here in front of you as an American," said Dalat. "To be exact, as a proud American Soldier defending freedom in the land of the rising sun."

Dalat began with a video presentation he produced that included interviews with eight Asian American or Pacific Islander Soldiers currently serving in the U.S. Army at Camp Zama.

The interviewees shared their diverse backgrounds, personal stories and why they chose to become American Soldiers.

Dalat continued his time with sharing his own personal story.

"Like these American Soldiers ... I want to serve the country that has given me so much. Today, I will share with you my perspective of the American Dream."

Dalat took the audience back to where his story all began - in the middle of the Vietnam War where he was born originally under the name Lan T. Nguyen in Da Lat, Vietnam.

Dalat said his mother decided to escape with their family to freedom from the post-war social, economic and political turmoil in Vietnam.

"On March 8, 1981, in the darkness of night, my mother, my three siblings, and I crept along the Saigon River.

"We left everything behind for a very dangerous journey, searching for freedom and opportunities," he said.

Dalat continued on, telling the audience about the small canoe he and his family traveled in to meet up with others who were fleeing Vietnam on a larger boat he described as an "unseaworthy, wooden boat."

"At that moment my family and I unknowingly joined a new and growing demographic called 'boat people.' We were among millions of Vietnamese who crammed onto small wooden boats and fled Vietnam."

There were a total of 138 passengers, he said.

After enduring five days of the pounding waves of the South China Sea, Dalat said, the vessel's engine stopped, leaving them without power and adrift the open sea.

When the food and water supply ran low, Dalat said small groups began discussing the implications of cannibalism for their ultimate survival.

"Facing a critical juncture, some openly discussed suicide as a better alternative to dying of starvation and exposure," he said.

Dalat recalled a moment when his younger brother was thirsty and asked their mother if she could buy him some water.

"Son, I will buy you all the water you want when we get to shore. Don't worry, we will be there soon," Dalat said his mother insisted, trying to comfort his little brother.

After several days of the voyagers sinking into a "deep pit of hopelessness," Dalat said on the evening of March 20, 1981 someone seated on the other side of their boat noticed ships, which caused an increase in excitement for everyone once again.

"Pure excitement rushed through my body," said Dalat, "as I screamed out while looking at my mother and siblings 'I can see the ships!'"

U.S. Navy Captain Dan A. Pedersen, USS Ranger CV-61 commanding officer, ordered his crew to change course of the aircraft carrier with crew members rescuing all 138 boat people, according to Dalat's account.

"At that point, I was no longer a boat person. I became a refugee."

According to Dalat, half a million boat people died at sea and 1,231,000 reached refuge with the U.S. adopting 823,000 refugees.

Dalat, his family, and the other refugees were taken to the Philippines and placed inside a Vietnamese Refugee Camp in Puerto, Princesa, Palawan, Philippines with his family later settling in Orange County, Calif.

Dalat said his father - who attempted many escapes from Vietnam with hopes of sending for the rest of the family - had been in jail but was later released, making a successful escape and immigrating to the U.S. two days before Dalat's high school graduation.

After he graduated high school, Dalat enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve as a way to serve and help pay for school.

Dalat also became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. and changed his surname, which was Nguyen at the time, to Dalat in honor of his birthplace.

He said he wanted to be an American but did not want to forget "my heritage" and "my roots."

"I set my goal toward achieving the American Dream; I focused my effort in getting a commission as an Army Officer."

Dalat said his pace for success was much slower than most of his peers because he had to balance his life with a full-time job, a struggling immigrant family, and school.

Nevertheless, he graduated from California State University-Fullerton and was commissioned through the Army ROTC program as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps.

"The United States adopted me and gave me the same equal opportunities that are available to every American," Dalat told the audience. "America is definitely a country with core values worth risking one's life to protect."

"I gladly stand and fight to ensure that future generations will have the same freedom and opportunities we enjoy today.

"I was born in Vietnam but made in the USA."

The observance concluded with entertainment that included Hawaiian and Samoan dance performances followed by an awards presentation to Dalat and his son Dan Dalat, a senior at Zama American High School.

Dalat said his son was named after U.S. Navy Capt. Dan Pedersen whom he referred to as "the skipper who had saved my life on the open sea."